Hourglass Wine released their first vintage in 1997 and until recently, their entire production was from a single 4 acre vineyard just north of St. Helena. The Smith Family have lived in the Napa Valley since the mid 1960’s and today Hourglass is owned by Jeff Smith and his wife Carolyn. Jeff’s father was a real estate developer and had the foresight to recognize that people would be captivated not only by the scenic beauty of the Napa Valley but also by the wines produced from this region.
In 1975 along with his wife he founded the Wine Country Inn ( www.winecountryinn.com ) located just off of Lodi Lane in the northern part of the valley. Note that the Smith family sold Wine Country inn, in 2016 – the new owner continues to operate this property. While having foresight, he also had a practical side – the inn was constructed so that it could readily be converted back to apartments if there ever was a shortage of visitors. Fortunately this never was a problem and while managing the inn they soon planted 4 acres to Zinfandel. They sold fruit all the way up to 1990.
In the early 1990’s Jeff’s mother was interested in selling the property – at the time Jeff was living in San Francisco and working in management at Skyy Vodka. Jumping at the chance to move to the valley Jeff soon took over the vineyard management. At this time Phylloxera hit the valley and and as Jeff discussed with us this really caused a paradigm shift within the wine industry. Before Phylloxera struck the valley was farmed with more of a Bordeaux mindset and Phylloxera was like a reset switch in which soils, rootstalks, clones, trellising, vine row positions and many other factors were looked at in new light. After Phylloxera, the Hourglass vineyard was replanted entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon although there is a single Chardonnay vine within the vineyard and yes its fruit always goes into the wine each year.
Aside from managing the vineyards and talking about viticulture Jeff’s other passion is terroir and geology. The name “hourglass” is an appropriate name for their original estate vineyard. During Jeff’s early involvement in the vineyard he wanted to find someone to walk the vineyard who had knowledge about specific vineyard sites as well as Napa Valley. Enter Dr. Mark Kliewer (who was Dean of the viticulture program at UC Davis) who proclaimed this vineyard as one of the great vineyard sites in the Napa Valley and explained the location as being the middle of an hourglass. If you look at the Napa Valley from a birds eye view the valley pinches down just north of St. Helena and then opens up again to the north. Their vineyard is located right at this geographical narrowing between the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca mountains to the east.
As a result of this unique location – there is a fairly large diurnal swing in the daily temperatures during the summer. The warmer part of the valley to the north combined with the cooler part of the valley to the south creates afternoon breezes and wind currents over the vineyard. In addition the vineyard tends to hold the fog later in the morning. So what does this all mean to the vines – because of the unique location the grapes tend to hang on the vine much longer and their ripening is actually slowed down leading to balanced evenly ripened fruit.
Having a rock component to the soils is a very important aspect of great hillside vineyards and Hourglass certainly has this in both their vineyards. The Hourglass Vineyard is composed of a fractured bedrock which extends under the vineyard jutting out as a single arm from the Mayacamas Mountains. The Hourglass vineyard is also located in a great “wine” neighborhood, just north of the town of St. Helena; nearby neighbors include Grace Family, Vineyard 29, and Colgin’s Tychson Hill Vineyard.
Their second and newest vineyard is the 20 acre Blue Line estate located on a 40 acre piece of property along the Silverado Trail south of Calistoga. Jeff spent several years looking for a second vineyard to complement their Hourglass vineyard and at one point called off their search as it was becoming too difficult to find just the right location. One day Jeff saw property for sale and after walking the land knew this would be an excellent site to add to their repertoire. Similar to the Hourglass Vineyard the Blueline Vineyard is mineral rich but nutrient poor. Jeff knew they had a good vineyard site during a particularly rainy winter when walking the property he saw very little mud buildup – it is a rocky porous soil that is very well drained.
This name is again a geographical reference as “blue line” is the line on US Forest service maps to indicate riparian zones including creeks and in this case is named after the two creeks on the property. These creeks connect to the Napa River and incidentally are spawning creeks for Salmon (fingerlings) which do actually make it this far from the San Pablo Bay to the south of the Napa Valley.
2009 was the first vintage they made in their own physical winery. The well-respected Bob Foley (Pride, Switchback Ridge, Foley) has been their winemaker since the beginning. We made a recent visit to their new cave during a visit with Jeff. The cave is state of the art – built with functionality in mind in part with input from Bob. It was designed by San Francisco architectural company, Lundberg Design (Rudd Estate in Oakville, and the Slanted Door Restaurant in San Francisco). The cave is set under the hillside towards the back of the property and was dug into almost solid rock. As a result no wall facing was needed and the inside walls of the cave show all the marks from the drill bits.
The original plan for the Blueline Vineyard was to create a Bordeaux styled blend but as Jeff says, “sometimes Mother Nature wins out” and during their blending trials they were quite impressed with each wine as a stand alone varietal. As a result, all of their Blueline label wines express varietal characteristics and are all 100% varietal. These wines include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and just a tiny production of Cabernet Franc. 2006 was their first release under this label.
As Jeff says the key to Merlot is having the right soils. This Merlot has the right soils and when its presented like this those who don’t often care for Merlot may reconsider. The 2006 Blueline Merlot is very dark in the glass with an elegant fruit forward bouquet showing some minerality characteristics, floral notes and subtle hints of cedar. The palate is smooth and voluptuous – with a juicy entry. Red plum, and raspberry flavors are well balanced by refined slightly earthy tannins. This wine shows more red fruit rather than dark fruit flavors. It has great acidity and will pair well with food. The finish is super long.
The 2006 Blueline Cabernet Sauvignon is a dark ruby color in the glass. Notes of toffee and espresso from the particular barrel program show as underlying aromas on the bouquet. As the wine breathes more aromas of cherry dominate. The palate has a slightly tart expression showing dark fruit. Broad tannins form the finish to this medium to full bodied wine. Again this is an ideal food wine.
The 2006 Hourglass is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Terroir also includes what grows on a site and in this case there are several Eucalyptus trees as well as wild fennel growing near and among this vineyard. These do influence the wine to some extent although Jeff says as the vineyard has matured their influence has become more muted, rather complementing the wine. You can tell this is a rich complex wine just from the bouquet. Subtle hints of menthol and black licorice are found along with vanilla, cigar box aromas and dark ripe frit. Complex layered flavors show on the palate including blueberry and ripe blackberry. The finish shows structure but in an elegant kind of way; this is very well balanced wine.
Both vineyards produce dark wines that have great natural acidity and pleasing structure at a younger age but will certainly age well and Hourglass already has a 10+ year history to prove that.
Hourglass wines are in high demand and there is a rather substantial waiting list to get on the mailing list however you can find the wines locally at ACME Fine Wines in St. Helena. Incidentally, the owners of ACME played an important role in getting their initial vintage some quick high end exposure when in 2001 they pitted Hourglass wines against some Napa expensive notables including Harlan, Bryant Family and Screaming Eagle during the week of the Napa Valley wine auction. During tastings by professional tasters the Hourglass wines were always rated very highly and were much more affordably priced then these other “cult” wineries. You can also find their wines in the valley at the St. Helena Wine Center and at Dean & Deluca.
A visit to the winery cave is for serious wine enthusiasts and mailing list customers. A walk down cave within the entire cave winery serves as their plush tasting room and is very well decorated. It can be easy to whittle away a few hours in this part of the cave over good wine and good conversation!